Greece ponders future of Olympic sites

The world sighed with relief when Greeks kept their promise to deliver some of the world’s finest sport venues in time for the Athens Olympics. But with the Games nearing their end, it is not clear what the future holds in store. «Large sums have been spent on the venues’ construction, but no economic viability studies were drawn up for them,» Greece’s Alternate Culture Minister Fanni Palli-Petralia, who is in charge of the Games, told a gathering of real estate agents, sport federation officials and journalists in Athens last week. The Games’ 7-billion-euro (US$8.5 billion) bill has stretched Greek finances to their limit. «Greek taxpayers have paid enough. The time for dividends has come,» said Christos Hadziemmanouil, president of Hellenic Olympic Properties. The newly set-up, state-owned holding company is to look into ways to make around 15 Olympic venues profitable after the Games. But the company is still far from signing any deals, Hadziemmanouil admits. «We have to create demand first,» he said on the sidelines of the same meeting. The stables of the equestrian center at Markopoulo, east of Athens are «coveted,» Hadziemmanouil said in an optimistic tone. Various television stations are said to be interested in the International Broadcasting Centre (IBC), the hub for the Games’ television and radio transmissions. And there were «advanced» talks with Ergotelis, a provincial football club to take over the new Pankrition football stadium on the Greek island of Crete. Elsewhere the story is different. The sumptuous wrestling and judo stadium located in a downmarket suburb of Athens suffers from poor public transport access and no subsequent use for it is in sight. The 150-million-euro rowing center of Schinias lies in a nature reserve and Hadziemmanouil has warned investors that environmental standards in the area will be respected. The Olympic football stadium in the provincial city of Volos is «probably too big» for the city, he admitted. Even if all the venues manage to find leasers, Hadziemmanouil has given up hope of recovering their construction costs. «The realistic target for most venues is a good management to cover maintenance and operation,» he said. To make matters worse, nobody knows yet how high operational costs will be. «We don’t know the extent of maintenance and operation costs,» he said. Related estimates vary wildly, ranging from 25 to 100 million euros a year. The 40-year-old academic has to walk a tightrope in his quest for investors. «If we confine the venues to their Olympic (sporting) use, they would bleed financially… if we turn them into supermarkets, they would lose their immaterial (brand) value,» said the assistant professor at the London School of Economics, who took a two-year leave from his teaching job to solve Greece’s post-Olympic conundrum. Real estate agents are excited by the new business prospects, but also fear that an oversupply of office space as well as conference and concert halls could lead the Athens property market to collapse. Greece has notched up a poor performance in running its sports venues profitably. The Games’ main Olympics stadium, built 20 years ago, recouped only 25 percent of its overall costs, said an informed source. The main Olympics stadium is excluded from Hadziemmanouil’s remit. Taxpayers are most likely to pick up the bill for its operation. According to press reports, it will be leased to AEK Athens, Greece’s third-biggest and most indebted football club. And the State also stands ready to serve as a lessee of last resort. Non-sporting venues such as the headquarters of Games’ organizers ATHOC could simply be turned into government buildings as ministries increasingly move out of the Greek capital’s center to the suburbs.

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